How many priests today do we know of who spend 13 to 17 hours daily in the confessional? Perhaps none. Many will say that is an impractical way of spending time as a priest, given the many challenges he has to face in managing his parish: attending meetings, creating programs for the less privileged, and so many other matters.
There was one priest who did spend 13 to 17 hours daily in the confessional, and he happens to be the patron saint of all priests: St. John Mary Vianney. As parish priest of Ars, a small village in France, his purpose was single-minded: to convert sinners and to save souls. He spent his days in prayer, teaching Catechism, and hearing confessions. He did not save his parishioners from material poverty. He did not give them jobs. He did not encourage them to “dialogue” with other religions. He did not organise health caravans, job fairs, tree planting projects, walk for a cause projects, and many other activities that we see many priests of today get busy with. He did not indirectly encourage people to remain in their sins by over-emphasising God’s mercy without the need for repentance. In fact, in his homilies, he thundered against the prevalent vices of the village of Ars: blasphemies, cursing, profanation of Sundays, dances and gatherings at taverns, immodest songs and conversations.
The greatest miracle of Ars was not the material transformation of the village – it was the spiritual transformation of its people under its pastor. The life of St. John Vianney is the story of a humble and holy man who succeeded in the only measure of success that matters for a priest: converting thousands of sinners.
A New Emphasis
Fast forward to today, and we see the priorities of the clergy seemingly heading in a different direction: seemingly for the good of people as well, but quite contrary to the essence of the priesthood. The priorities of the Church, as emphasised by the highest authorities, are to help save the planet, help save the poor, solve solve youth unemployment, reach out to non-Catholic brethren in dialogue.
In fact, in an interview with the atheist editor of La Republicca, a rabidly anti-Catholic publication in Italy, Pope Francis said that “the most serious evils currently afflicting the world are unemployment among the young and the solitude in which the elderly are left. This, in my opinion, is the most urgent problem facing the Church”.
The Pope has also suggested that we tone down talk regarding defence of human life: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible…it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Saving the planet is likewise a major priority: in fact, the first encyclical, Laudate Si, is about the environment. On December 8, 2015, instead of a celebration of the Immaculate Conception, the focus was on the environment, with a Vatican-sponsored environmental light show in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Inter religious dialogue is another major point of emphasis. In fact, in January, the Pope released a prayer video that has since become quite controversial. At the beginning of the video, a minute-and-a-half long, the Pope cites the fact that the majority of the earth’s inhabitants profess some sort of religious belief. This, he said, “should lead to a dialogue among religions. We should not stop praying for it and collaborating with those who think differently.” The video then goes on to feature representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, who proclaim their respective beliefs in God, Jesus Christ, Allah and Buddha: “I have confidence in Buddha”, a female lama announces; “I believe in God”, a rabbi affirms; “I believe in Jesus Christ”, a priest states; “I believe in Allah”, Later on, after the Pope affirms that all, regardless of their religious profession, are children of God, the faith leaders state their common belief in love.
Amid all these major changes in direction, there are many questions that priests and bishops need to ask themselves. Is saving the planet more important than saving souls? Is material poverty truly the greatest evil – or is it spiritual poverty? We remember the story of Lazarus and the poor man – the materially poor man, who ate crumbs from Lazarus’ rich table, gained the greatest treasure anyone could gain: heaven.
Is inter religious dialogue more important than the God-given mandate to “Go out and proclaim the Gospel to all the nations…”? Didn’t Jesus say, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
This Lent, we invite our readers, especially the clergy, to go back to the basics of the priesthood and spiritual life in general: Saving souls is the primary goal, converting sinners is the number 1 mission. As Jesus said: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose his soul?” We end with the beautiful words of Archbishop Schneider: “The priesthood is concerned not with temporal things, but with eternal things. It is the same with the Church. The Church is not concerned with climate change, or ecology. That is the job of the government! The Church is concerned with eternal things.”